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Terror in Kabul portends dismal future


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, April 20,2012

Sunday’s multiple terrorist attacks on locations in Kabul, Jalalabad, Logar and Paktia offered yet another grim reminder of the volatility of Afghanistan in 2012. The extremely well-coordinated strikes took security forces by surprise even in the heavily fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district that houses most of foreign diplomatic missions. A similar attack on the ministry of interior in February had rocked the capital. 

As expected, President Hamid Karzai on Monday came out with a stinging criticism of NATO and ISAF, saying the attacks underlined the intelligence failure of foreign forces. 

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the strikes, and as usual, the Afghan security establishment has singled out the Haqqani Network as the prime suspect behind these dare-devil attacks, which sent shivers down the spines of locals and foreigners alike. They targeted interests that represent NATO (US, German, Turkish embassies) as well as India (the under construction Parliament). The attackers also seized the new hotel in Wazir Akbar Khan, where mostly foreigners put up. In one go, the militants displayed their rejection of “Foreign Occupation.” 

With these “blitz strikes” Taliban apparently launched their spring offensive – a few weeks ahead of the NATO summit on Afghanistan being held in May at Chicago, where member nations want to review their future strategies in Afghanistan. 

Even the U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker believes Haqqani network was probably involved. In an interview with the CNN Crocker speculated that - based on previous experience - “this this is a set of Haqqani network operations out of North Waziristan and the Pakistani tribal areas. This obviously refocuses attention on the Haqqanis that has been one of the most divisive issues between Washington and Islamabad. This is as much divisive as the divisions between the State Department and Department of Defense – Pentagon + CIA – on the future of Afghan mission and the strategy for disengagement of the bulk of troops. 

With President Barack Obama heading into the re-election bid, and at pains to explain to the American public that his administration is on course for the grand pullout by 2014, such assaults run contrary to Obama administration’s feel-good pronouncements on the Afghan mission. 

Already set apart by the consequences of the Nov 26 assault on the Salala Post, the latest attack throws another spanner in the efforts both in Washington and Islamabad to resume formal dialogue. It is likely to reverberate for some time because of suspicions on the Haqqani Network – treated by Pakistan for quite some time as “untouchable.” 

Regardless of what happens among Kabul, Islamabad and Washington on the issue of Haqqanis, the brazen string of assaults throw up a few intriguing questions. 

a) Why is the Haqqani Network being singled out? 

b) Who is interested in continued turmoil in Afghanistan? 

c) What is the state of preparedness of the Afghan Police and Special Forces? 

As far (a), despite the Taliban claim of responsibility, the instant pointation by Ambassador Crocker to the Haqqanis suggests that the American administration does not want to upset the Qatar-based negotiation process, and thence found it convenient again to blame the strikes on the Haqqanis alone, who are usually clubbed with Pakistan (“ veritable arm of the ISI,” in the words of the former army chief Admiral Michael Mullen on Sept 22, 2011). It is a very conscious refrain from pointing finger at Mulla Omar's Taliban. 

Haqqanis certainly do not operate on their own and independent of Mulla Omar. That is why the Taliban spokesman owned up these attacks, rather than somebody from the network. If once again, the Americans and Afghans begin harping on the same strings, this could create even greater roadblocks in the way of the eagerly awaited resumption of dialogue. 

Secondly, one wonders who benefits from the bloody status quo? A few hundred Afghans – both in and outside the government - who have become strong stakeholders in the current dispensation because of the opportunities that the war economy offers to them. Besides the Afghan politicians, businessmen, security contractors, tens of thousands of American private contractors also have their stakes in the billions of dollars that the conflict is consuming every day. 

On an average, 1.5 contractors serve a single US soldier, meaning there would still be about 150,000 American private contractors assisting the US-ISAF troops as well as the INGOs. The volumes run into billions of dollars, the US-NATO cargo business alone amounting between 4-5 billion dollars. These two categories of vested interest would love the conflict to continue and thus ensuring their personal promotion and enrichment. 

As far (C), commando raids on sensitive installations such as foreign missions and national ministries raise questions about the state of preparedness of the Afghan Police and National Army. The intelligence network – a conglomerate of American, British and Afghan intelligence establishments –has also left a big question mark on their ability to preempt such broad day-light raids.

The jailbreak in Bannu on Sunday raises similar questions around the state of preparedness of the Pakistani civilian and military forces as well as of the intelligence outfits. That a band of at least 150 armed Taliban aboard several pick-up vans converged on the jail and made good their escape with dangerous prisoners, is a huge embarrassment. It is also a rebuke to the claims by the federal and provincial governments on the state of preparedness.

Clearly, the intelligence apparatus in Pakistan is still short on effective preemption. The coordination between the civilian police and the military forces is also wanting and is evident from the fact that the rescue to the jail came only after the attackers had left.

Back to Afghanistan, the latest attacks portend dismal days ahead. They also foretell an intractable phase in the Pak-US and Pak-Afghan relations. This tripodal relationship remains hostage to deep-seated apprehensions and mistrust among these three countries. Every big act of terror only reinforces this acrimony. And with so much at stake for so many Afghans, Americans, as well as Taliban, who, too, make hundreds of millions of dollars from the cargo, business and poppy, chances of an end to conflict seem distant.

Was it a false flag attack meant to raise heat on Pakistan or head of possible resumption of formal talks?

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk